Safety First ... Or Safety Last? Cell-Phone Use

We all know that talking on the mobile phone while driving is a big no-no -- or it should be. (I am continually amazed at the number of drivers I see doing this.) The chief reason has to do with safety. According to one study, cell-phone distraction causes 2,600 deaths and 330,000 injuries in the United States every year. (If you’re curious why, the study found that drivers talking on cell phones were 18 percent slower to react to brake lights.)

On the Mobile Phone section on Wikipedia, it reports that a study in The New England Journal of Medicine found that drivers who used mobile phones while driving were four times more likely to crash than those who don't -- a rate equal to that for drunken driving at the .01 blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level.

OK, so what about cell-phone use when you’re not behind the wheel -- can that be bad for your general health? Recent research from Sweden says “Ja.” (That's "Yes," in Swedish.)

The findings have stirred up more controversy surrounding the link between extensive cell-phone use and an increased risk of brain cancer. According a Reuters report, people who are “heavy users” (defined as 2,000 hours or more of cell-phone use, or, roughly one hour a day for 10+ years) had a 240 percent increased risk of a cancerous tumor on the side of the head where they used their phone. (The results were published in the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health.) There’s controversy on this topic because several other similarly focused studies found that cell phones were safe and found no link.

On its website, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said the findings were “difficult to interpret,” and it will continue to “monitor studies looking at possible heath effects resulting from exposure to radio frequency energy.”

Everybody should know by now that cell phones emit radio frequency signals during calls. But just what are the long-lasting effects, no one is certain. According to Environment, Health and Safety Online, the two sides of the argument break down like this:

Cell phones are dangerous because: they emit microwaves; you hold the source of the emission against your brain; and there are claims that people have had brain tumors in the exact size, shape and position as the antenna on their cell phone.

Cell phones are safe because: cell phones use a very, very low level of radio frequency (RF) energy -- too low to cause damage; the type of energy emitted is non-ionizing --meaning it doesn't cause damage to chemical bonds or DNA; and hundreds of millions of people have been using cell phones and cordless phones for years. If there were a problem, we would have seen it by now.

That said, I also wonder about any legal implications for companies if new research is able to definitively link a cause and effect between cell phone use and brain tumors. Say an employee has been using a company-issued cell phone for many years, and he develops a tumor. Can the company be held liable for that if use of the mobile device was a requisite part of the job (sales positions come to mind )? Or what about if some sales person is in driving in their car and takes a work-related call, and then gets into an accident? Could the company be on the hook for that too?

There is, of course, one simple solution for all of this controversy, which many experts point out: use the hand’s-free capability. It’s not that expensive and easy to use, and it’s much safer when you’re driving in your car and you have to take that call.

Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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